Things look a little rough for Arnold Schwarzenegger right now. But as tarnished politicians (think Eliot Spitzer), businessmen (Michael Milken) and Hollywood stars (Robert Downey Jr.) have proved, it is possible to resuscitate one's image with purposeful hard work. And there might be no better avenue for Schwarzenegger than to go back to his roots and invest his celebrity, powers of persuasion and vast array of connections in a grand public project that would educate, entertain, boost the economy and properly enshrine Los Angeles' rightful place in the development of a world-renowned industry: the International Fitness Museum.
A world-class museum spotlighting the history, iconic figures and influence of fitness in America and throughout the world does not exist. But it should — and it should be in L.A. Fueled by sunshine, sandy beaches and Hollywood star power, the City of Angels has been the epicenter of fitness practically since the word existed.
"When you think of fitness, you start with the Greeks, then instantly go to Muscle Beach," says Joe Moore, president of Boston-based IHRSA, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn. "The great pioneers all did it in L.A."
Schwarzenegger himself — a champion bodybuilder from Austria who moved to Venice Beach, became a seven-time Mr. Olympia and rode the 1977 documentary "Pumping Iron" to fame and fortune — is a key player in the L.A. fitness phenomenon, which has its origins in the 1930s.
That's when East Coast bodybuilders began to congregate at the original Muscle Beach, an area studded with gymnastics rings, ladders and pull-up bars just south of the Santa Monica Pier, according to "Legends of Fitness" author Stephen Tharrett. The coastal locale provided more workout and tanning time, and by 1939 it had lured a Bay Area fitness buff named Jack LaLanne, who went on to set several world records, including doing 1,033 push-ups in a row. Before long, LaLanne and several regulars were drawing large crowds with their 20-foot human pyramids and other electrifying gymnastic feats. (By the time Schwarzenegger arrived, Muscle Beach had moved south to Venice.)
They also became pioneers of a new industry. Harold Zinkin, who won the first Mr. California bodybuilding title in 1941, invented the adjustable Universal weight-stack machines in use today in almost every gym. The first health clubs were founded in the late '40s and early '50s in Santa Monica and Pasadena by Vic Tanny and Ray Wilson, the latter licensing LaLanne's name. Millions of Americans were first exposed to exercise by watching LaLanne on his Los Angeles-based TV show, which was broadcast nationally for 27 years.
"L.A. was everything to him," says the late guru's stepson Dan Doyle, caretaker of the treasure trove of LaLanne memorabilia, inventions and videos gathering dust at his Morro Bay home and at an Oakland gym.
L.A. has long been "everything" to much of the fitness world. It boasts the highest per-capita density of health clubs in the country and a better-mousetrap mentality that makes it ground zero for nearly every modern major fitness trend and product. Consider:
• The LifeCycle (first marketed by Newport Beach's Augie Nieto in 1972) brought electronic aerobic training to gyms.
• The personal trainer (in demand after Bo Derek told Johnny Carson she used one to get in shape for the 1979 movie "10") became a must-have for stars and executives.
• Aerobic dance (which exploded with Santa Monica-based actress Jane Fonda's "Workout" tape in 1982) got women to work out in large numbers for the first time.
• In-line roller skating (patented in 1984 in Minnesota but popularized on the Venice boardwalk) made Rollerblades a necessary Christmas gift for baby boomers and kids alike.
• Spinning (the pedal-to-the music sensation created in West L.A. in 1987 by trainer-to-the-stars Johnny Goldberg) still packs millions of indoor cycling addicts into classes around the world.
Name the cutting-edge fitness trend, and inevitably it went viral in Los Angeles, be it step aerobics (invented in Atlanta by Gin Miller but mass-marketed from here in 1989), cardio kickboxing (the 1976 brainchild of Massachusetts native Billy Blanks, who popularized it here in the '90s) or kettle bells (a late 1990s Russian import from immigrant Pavel Tsatsouline). The L.A. area is also a beach volleyball destination, a triathlon hotbed, the incubator of CrossFit and the place where yoga went mainstream.
"It seems clear that Los Angeles has played a pivotal role in this field and that there may be a need to memorialize it," says Selma Holo, director of the International Museum Institute at USC.
What it could be
A museum wouldn't be a bad way to go, according to Michael McDowell, senior director of cultural tourism at the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Health and fitness is a huge multibillion-dollar market," he says. "A museum dedicated to it could certainly be a destination for tourists."
Los Angeles is an unusually museum-friendly place, with one of the highest concentrations of them in the U.S., according to McDowell. There are 105 museums within city limits and 841 in the region, including the Museum of the American West, the Museum of Neon Art, the Live Steamers Railroad Museum and even the Museum of Death.
McDowell's studies found that 20% of the 25 million visitors to the region are repeat customers who are always looking for new things to see and do. "So we would certainly welcome the addition of another museum," he says.
The trick will be making the International Fitness Museum more like a Los Angeles County Museum of Art or California Science Center and less like a Museum of Death. How do you make it interesting enough to draw big crowds and make sure many come back again and again?
The answer, says Bob Santelli, executive director of the 3-year-old Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, is to not to go old-school.
"On the surface, a fitness museum sounds wonderful," says Santelli, who was into the Los Angeles weightlifting scene in the 1970s. "We should preserve this legacy. But a good idea and pictures of Jack and Arnold isn't enough. How do you sustain the interest in a fast-moving world that changes every week? It has to be dynamic."
To keep people interested at the Grammy Museum, Santelli applied lessons he learned running the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland and Paul Allen's state-of-the-art Experience Music Project in Seattle, which is more of an activity center than a museum. So Santelli's Grammy Museum allows the visitor to engage in the creative process, learning how to create rap records with Jermaine Dupri and write songs with Hal David.
"And that's what the fitness museum would do — physically," he says. "A lot of hands-on experiences. You can't dazzle me anymore with complex nutritional and exercise babble. Got to bring it down to what people can understand."
That could mean exhibits that teach fitness and physiology principles through movement and technology; a cutting-edge gym for members and guests; a colorized hologram of a 1950s Jack LaLanne leading visitors in a chair workout; celebrity-taught classes, like kickboxing with Kim Kardashian; lectures by the likes of Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobics, on hot topics such as brain training, minimalist running shoes and antioxidant research; an anti-steroid education exhibit, a futuristic nutrition bar stocked with energy bar patches that dispense nutrients over a four-hour bike ride; a theater for screening films; an on-site biomechanics and exercise research institute affiliated with USC or UCLA; a chance to preview new fitness devices and workouts; and Genius Bar-style consultations with resident fitness and diet coaches.
The possibilities are as broad as the fitness world itself. But to make it happen will require more than a few volunteer docents.
Which brings us back to Schwarzenegger.
Once you have the vision, how do you get the thing built?
In L.A., the go-to solution is to tap into the great-man-leaves-a-monument complex. That's how we got the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Norton Simon Museum; the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens; the Hammer Museum; and the Petersen Automotive Museum, McDowell says.
But in lieu of a billionaire sugar daddy, McDowell thinks a fitness museum could tap numerous industry players. "Since there is a huge multibillion-dollar market in health and fitness,it'd likely be very attractive to corporate sponsors," he says.
24 Hour Fitness, the nation's largest health club operator with 422 locations, would "definitely consider a considerable involvement in an L.A.-based fitness museum — in cash or in-kind," says Tony Wells, chief marketing officer for the San Ramon-based company. "The overall concept is really neat."
Herbalife, the Los Angeles-based nutritional supplements giant, endorsed the concept too. "We've always supported living a healthy, active life, and educating people and raising awareness of fitness through a fitness museum would hopefully encourage people to adapt healthier habits," says company spokesman George Fischer.
Experts say that the key to recruiting potential sponsors is an extraordinarily connected, resourceful and wealthy board of directors. "You could put well-known fitness icons like Suzanne Somers, Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons on the board of trustees — people whose household-name recognition can instantly pull strings," Santelli says.
Of course, one name has the most pull of all.
"If you aspire to create a national museum of fitness, you couldn't get a better person than Arnold," Santelli says. "This is a guy who can focus. Get him."
Would this be an attractive project to the former governor and bodybuilding legend? An International Fitness Museum would put people to work, bring in big tourist bucks and promote a healthy lifestyle in this era of obesity and health concerns — all while showcasing his and others' athletic achievements and their effect on the culture of Los Angeles and the world. The concept would have to be appealing. And leaving a lasting legacy is nice for anyone.
Schwarzenegger's people turned down multiple requests to discuss the idea. But L.A. needs him for this project. And he just might find that he needs it as much himself.